Every month, Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.
For this month’s Pre-Code Crazy pick I used the opportunity to finally see a movie I probably should have watched by now, Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (1933). West plays a nightclub headliner who we learn has not just done HIM wrong, but a lot of them (and vice versa). She’s loved and left several men in her wake, most of whom can be found in prison, and she attracts new males like a magnet. The suitors and interested parties range from a saloon owner (Noah Beery) to a con man with a grudge (Owen Moore), to a missionary who judges her habit of obscuring her soul with diamonds (Cary Grant), to a potential suitor whose attention to West infuriates his lady friend and keeper (Gilbert Roland). Any woman who can enchant and infuriate such a diverse bunch of men has to be something special, and West is certainly that; she remains unflappable and slick through all their advances and ensuing crises, even handling an attempt on her life with characteristic wry humour and sarcasm.
This adaptation of West’s Broadway hit “Diamond Lil,” was full of raunchy, risque lines and situations that had to be toned down, even for the looser standards of the Pre-Code era. It’s tame compared to modern indecency, but still, the screenplay is racy enough and benefits from perfect delivery by West, mistress of juicy repartee, impeccable timing and innuendo. For the first ten minutes West is unseen but generously built up, hailed as the premier attraction not just at Beery’s club but for most of the men in town (one of the “finest women to ever walk the streets”) before she makes her entrance. By that time we’ve met Beery, and figured out his racket is not just entertainment but prostitution and counterfeit money. He keeps West close and unsuspecting by pouring diamonds over her. We’ve also heard about Grant, the persistent do-gooder from the local Mission who keeps a judging eye on the bar’s goings-on, and we’ve learned about David Landau, the aspiring politician who has a past with West and got her ex locked up in prison. All of which serves as perfect windup for the pitch when she finally slinks down the stairs to meet us all. Roland says,“I have heard so much about you,” and West purrs, “Yeah, but you can’t prove it.”
Mae West was one of the most quotable stars of any era; goodness knows I’ve often repeated her words and admired her achievements despite having seen only a couple of her movies. Her persona and talent were too huge to be contained by a theater audience or a 60 minute film (it became too huge to even be maintained by herself, and she tended to play a caricature in later years). She Done Him Wrong, a massive box office smash, was the first exposure wider audiences had to the full act of the bawdy, Rubenesque, iconoclastic and just plain fun dame (she made her debut in the previous year’s Night After Night, but this time the spotlight was on her character). It was also the first exposure Paramount had to gross earnings in a long time; the gamble they took on bringing West’s scandalous act to the screen paid with box office bounty that saved the studio from bankruptcy.
In this early film performance it’s easy to see everything that made her so appealing and fresh. Lines like “come up again, any time… there was a time I didn’t know where my next husband was coming from…it was a toss up whether I go in for diamonds or sing in the choir. The choir lost.” West gets to perform a few tunes, shortened but still long enough to show you what made her such an attraction: “A Guy What Takes His Time,” “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone,” and “Frankie and Johnny.” One line I love here, not delivered by West: “You know, ever since I sang that song it’s been haunting me. /It SHOULD haunt you, you murdered it.”
Early in the story Rochelle Hudson wanders into the saloon, with clothing torn and face drawn with utter despair, and she’s stopped as she tries to commit suicide. That episode leads us into West’s parlour where she administers to the girl some signature wisdom on the subject of romance and heartbreak. West correctly deduces that Hudson’s been wronged by a man and teaches her how to bounce back; “who would ever want me” says Hudson, to which West replies, “listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them.” Unbeknownst to West, Hudson gets scooped into the slave ring, but West will sort that out before the end credits, just as she’ll squirm out of an arrest, happen into a solid romantic future, deal with her vengeful ex and discover the identity of the investigator working undercover to crack the saloon’s criminal activities wide open. No word on whether she ever gets her assistant Louise Beavers to move faster when she beckons.
It is West’s showcase but thanks to director Lowell Sherman, every one of the fun group of actors gets their moment, it all moves quickly, and the script gives us enough plot on which to hang West’s comebacks, enough even to make us stop to consider the consequences of her ways. But you don’t watch this type of film for the story. You see it to experience the emergence of a pop culture icon, captured in an era that had the freedom to show a new type of female star flipping the gender roles and pushing the boundaries (it’s ok to see it just for young Cary too).
Catch She Done Him Wrong on TCM April 20, and go see what Pre-Code Karen has picked out for you to watch this month.